Do People Make Racially Biased Decisions without Knowing It?

Do we make decisions based on race? Although most people would answer no to this question, a new study suggests that we may actually be doing just that unconsciously. Psychologists at the New York University laboratory of Professor Elizabeth Phelps conducted a trial to determine if people made decisions based on racial biases. The two elements examined were trustworthiness and economic or business decisions. “Decisions in the worlds of business, law, education, medicine, and even more ordinary daily interactions between individuals, all rely on trust,” the researchers wrote. “In an increasingly globalized economy, that trust must be forged between individuals who differ in background, shared experiences, and aspirations.”

The results revealed that individuals who were biased toward a specific race perceived faces of the same ethnicity as more trustworthy. “These results provide evidence that decisions we may believe to be consciously determined are, in fact, not entirely so, and suggest that this may have a very real cost for individuals and society,” they continued. “Whom we trust is not only a reflection of who is trustworthy, but also a reflection of who we are.”

Additionally, the same results were found when the participants were asked which race they would choose for business and economic decisions. In a related article, the researchers explain that people make decisions based on both an explicit and implicit mental process. The explicit process uses intentional decision-making and forms choices based on judgments and outward perceptions. Our implicit mental process is most often an unconscious process of choosing and occurs without a person’s awareness.

The evidence gathered from this study leads researchers to believe that implicit social biases may be catalysts for immediate evaluations of strangers. Unless our minds have more information on which to make explicit decisions, our implicit mental process will supersede those evaluations.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • RE


    April 28th, 2011 at 7:25 PM

    I agree that we all make decision based on the race of the other person at some point of time unconsciously. But this is mostly because of all the prejudice that exists in the society. Take a look at some countries where there are people of many different races where there is no general prejudice,people there,I’m sure,would not make as many unconscious decisions!

  • Anne


    April 29th, 2011 at 4:35 AM

    I know we have all heard people who say “I’m not prejudiced but. . .”

  • joey


    May 7th, 2011 at 2:01 PM

    I feel there’s no denying that we’re all racist to a degree, and not always conscious of the fact. If a man told you he was a Nigerian and you’ve been online for any length of time, you would immediately think “scammer” because of all those phishing emails you get referencing that country. It would be a very wrong and unfair kneejerk reaction, but a truthful reaction nonetheless.

  • Jamie


    May 8th, 2011 at 6:58 PM

    @joey: Same if they said that they were Muslim or Arabic. “He’s probably a terrorist,” some would think. When it comes to stereotypes, I think these people get the worst and most undeserved rap of all. The vast majority are perfectly peace loving and law abiding, same as you and I.

  • Dustin


    May 8th, 2011 at 8:02 PM

    The media and previous generations are completely to blame on this in my opinion. Nobody on this planet can say that they are not biased in some way towards one racial or religious group or another. These fears come from somewhere, are often engrained in us by our parents and even though its foundations may have been laid in truth back then, it doesn’t necessarily remain the same for future generations.

  • Phoebe


    May 10th, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    There are countless laws in place to protect people from these biases and people still don’t get it. People choose to be racist! When you’re an adult you can’t blame maw and paw for everything anymore because you can choose to leave their teachings behind.

  • Megan


    May 10th, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    I find that it’s not so much race, but culture. If a person came from a culture where it was acceptable to lie any time you wanted for example, you would be biased against what they said and did. There would always be a strong suspicion that they were cheats because of their cultural background. Bias comes in many shapes and forms.

  • Opal


    May 11th, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    As a teacher, I’ve heard stories like that a few times and it’s disgraceful. Unfortunately, if you pick out the one doing wrong and he or she’s a minority, some will be quick to accuse you of racism. Even when he did something wrong that any student in the school would be disciplined for, had they done the same!

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